Chaplaincy or Church? : Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I’ve done both.
For a little over four years, I served as a university chaplain for the Episcopal Church. Now, on a university campus of 42,000 students, most of whom were commuters, one’s ministry is mainly involved in gathering a “club” of those Episcopalians and Anglicans who might be on the campus. In addition to the students, there was also ministry to those faculty members who shared this faith background. At the beginning of each term, I would receive cards in the mail from parish pastors giving me the names of students from their churches who were attending the school with the hope and expectation that I could involve them in the ministry of the chaplaincy. We did occasionally attract students from other traditions, but we were sensitive to the other chaplaincies on campus – Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian and evangelical – and, generally, we each “plowed our own field”.
On campus we often cooperated with the other chaplaincies in holding larger events or bringing in speakers like Jesse Jackson. When, however, I brought in people like Robert Webber, John Stott or Kenneth Leech, it was mainly with my own group in mind. In such a chaplaincy, I pretty well knew the people who would attend Bible studies, Morning or Evening Prayer, or celebrations of the Eucharist. It was a small group that liked being a small group and, as chaplain, my ministry was to care for the needs of that group and to provide for an Anglican presence in the life of the university.
Following my time as chaplain, I went onto the staff of a parish church in New York City, St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue. In the course of my first week, I realized that this was to be a different sort of ministry. First was the service schedule which, in the course of an average week, consisted of 26 different services, some requiring all clergy to be present and others divided up among the five of us on staff. I also had the responsibility for premarital counseling, a schedule for hospital visitation and a list of shut-ins to visit on a weekly basis. Additionally, the rector of the parish asked me to construct an Adult Christian education program as well as a young married couples group. This, of course, is not to mention sitting on boards and committees both in the parish and in the city.
This was anything but a “club”. You seldom knew who, or how many might show up. Usually, at the 8 a.m. weekday Eucharist, there would be a group of 15-20 with three or four regulars and the rest visitors. One morning, however, I walked into the chapel to officiate only to find Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his entourage occupying the first three pews (thankfully, I had met him before in Detroit). To build a young marrieds group, we held champagne receptions for twenty at a time in our apartment, often barely knowing those who had been invited into our home. For the midweek adult education lectures, the 50-100 that attended changed week by week as regulars would invite friends or people would have interest in a particular topic. On any given week, you could see regular parishioners, guests from out of town, the editor of Newsweek or someone who had just arrived in the city looking for a church. The goal was to be expansive and welcoming.
It has occurred to me, however, that it is very easy in certain circumstances for a church to be transformed into a chaplaincy. It often happens as a congregation ages. We know the numbers have decreased, but it is easier not to change. Moreover, while we may say that we want to see the church grow, new people will, by definition, create a dynamic that may disturb what we find comfortable and predictable. Additionally, many new churches not only begin as a chaplaincy style “club” but also find it difficult to move beyond that model. This is often owing to a leader or leadership team that finds the evolution from a chaplaincy model to a church model to be a threat to their perceived authority. Keeping things the same in a closed group means that you can keep the dynamic that you know.
Moving from chaplaincy to church means there will be some surprises, some risks and some setbacks.
Yet, recently, I’ve been looking at the Church in the book of Acts. From the Ascension in the first chapter to Paul’s preaching in Rome in the last chapter, it is a book of surprises. It is the surprise of Pentecost, Matthias brought into the Twelve, Paul’s conversion, the mission to the Gentiles, new personalities and characters appear and disappear in the course of the story. The whole book takes you from a small tightly knit group in an upper room to a diverse collection of men and women spread across the breadth of the Roman empire. I think that too often we read the book as “theology” when we should, perhaps, be reading it as an adventure. At each stage in that adventure story, I am struck by the expansive and welcoming nature of the Church in that first generation, despite the risks and setbacks.
Looking back, I’m glad that I had the experience of a chaplaincy and pleased that there were people who were helped by its work. I believe, however, in our current state in America it is “Church” that is needed and not a “club”.